Pop Knows Best
Tony Award-winning actor Gregory Jbara has played many fathers, but educating his sons about HIV is his leading role
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Timothy J. Haines
Tony Award-winning actor Gregory Jbara has played many fathers, but educating his sons about HIV is his leading role
The night before I met Gregory Jbara at his Los Angeles home, he sent this e-mail: “I’m going to be running around doing errands in the morning so you don’t need to get here any sooner than noon. Chances are when you arrive there will be a crew of lawn guys dragging greenery out of the backyard. So parking in the driveway might not be possible. Just park wherever you can on the street and come in thru the side door (on your left as you face the house). Bring socks you like as we are a shoes-off in the house kinda family. Also, if you’re in the mood for caffeine, you might want to bring as we may only have some green tea in the house. Looking forward to tomorrow!”
Greg’s casualness and neighborly attitude was no surprise, as for months we’ve been corresponding and getting to know one another. (I discover later that his friendly and caring behavior is genuine and purely who Greg is, not just a cover to impress a journalist.) We were unable to set an interview date, mostly due to his hectic schedule. When we first began communicating, he was performing on Broadway, playing Billy’s father in Billy Elliot, for which he won a Tony Award. Greg originated the role and departed the company in September 2011 after three years. The show closed four months later in January 2012. After Billy, he landed the role of Garrett Moore in the Tom Selleck TV series Blue Bloods, which is also produced in New York. It makes it rather difficult to have a family life with a wife and two young boys, but Greg manages very well thank-you-very-much.
He’s an old hand at juggling show biz, landing his first TV spot on Newhart in 1987, and the following year on Broadway in Serious Money, performing opposite Alec Baldwin and Kate Nelligan. And like any skilled character actor, his roles vary greatly, making it tricky to tag him from one production to another. For example, Greg played Billy Flynn in the Broadway revival of Chicago, he was a pre-op transsexual lesbian in the film Jeffrey, he became Mel Gibson in Epic Movie, and was the closeted “Squash Bernstein” in Broadway’s Victor/Victoria. Greg has lent his rich voice to Family Guy twice, and he’s even played Frankenstein, which marked his off-Broadway debut.
I was fortunate to see Greg on Broadway in Billy Elliot. His riveting performance as Jackie Elliot was captivating enough, but then in the midst of the curtain call, Greg stepped forward. Dressed in his character’s mustard hued miner’s outfit and white tutu—yes, a tutu!—and a beaming smile, with one of the small kids from the cast perched on his shoulders, Greg said, “I’m sorry to interrupt this wonderful standing ovation; however, I want to tell you all about an organization that is near to my heart.” He forged ahead into a two to three minute touching monologue—all while the audience remained standing—about the important work of Broadway Cares. He concluded with, “Please, as you leave the theater, there will be people holding red buckets to drop your donation.” With applause, the curtain dropped and Greg immediately positioned himself at the exit doors carrying his little red bucket.
“When my wife, Julie, used to come to visit me in New York,” Greg notes, “she’d say, ‘When’s Broadway Bares? We’re getting a babysitter and you’re taking me! I want to see all that meat out there….’” He smiles, looking like a cuddly Yogi Bear. Greg is leaning against the stove in their remodeled kitchen. He’s decked out and dapper in dark blue jeans, white T-shirt, and wrapped in a Calphalon white and Polo green-striped apron, as if ready for a backyard barbeque. He has just proudly given me a tour of their newly revamped 1923 home, a modest dwelling located in a suburban area, which includes two toilets in the master bedroom sitting across from one another. You read that correctly—two toilets in one bathroom. “We won’t compete for the seat,” declared Greg with an enthusiastic grin. While Julie, a body talk practitioner, conducts a meeting in the converted garage cum office, Greg prepares tonight’s supper for the family. He’s also preparing iced green tea for his guest.
“With Broadway Bares, you know, it’s people getting into as little clothing as possible, and I think you do catch the occasional nipple,” he says with a taunting tone, “but it’s the ultimate striptease. Every hot dancer that’s on Broadway and some of the wackiest comedians who you don’t want to see with their clothes off, will go out and give it their all. Each number is a vignette, and has a story and a theme. Jerry Mitchell, who originally founded Broadway Bares, still oversees each production,” Greg points out. “It’s also an opportunity for the up and coming choreographers who were dancers on Broadway to create and stage these vignettes. It serves a lot of people in a lot of great ways. But ultimately it makes….” He halts, searching for a word then utters, “stupid [amount]…you know….hundreds of thousands of dollars.” He shakes his head with pleasing admiration.
Though a seasoned pro, playing Jackie Elliot was a challenge for Greg. “I didn’t sing and dance like the others,” he admits, putting groceries away from Trader Joe’s. “When I first got the job and we were in rehearsals, I was concerned that I wouldn’t have the chops to do that show eight times a week—on two levels. One,
on a very fundamental level, vocally, the screaming that took place for my character…?! A couple of weeks into previews, our musical director took me aside and said, ‘We need to get you to Joan Lader.’ She’s the voice guru in New York City. Everybody goes to her from news anchors to opera singers to Broadway people. I’m a Julliard-trained actor and there’s nothing that she told me or showed me that I didn’t already know. But, it’s like she sold her soul to the devil,” he whispers. “When she puts her hands on your throat and goes, ‘Do you feel your muscles here that need to move when you do this?’ Suddenly it releases for the first time! I went, ‘I knew that, but how come …What are you doing that’s so different?!’ Joan is an amazing teacher and she got me through that.
His second concern was feeling confident enough to ride the emotional rollercoaster of Jackie Elliot. Fortunately during rehearsals he learned new techniques and ultimately mastered the feat of the psychological game: If he tried not to force it, all the emotional pieces would come.
“Honestly, in Billy Elliot, er, in the last two Broadway shows [Dirty Rotten Scoundrels], I think I had the easiest job out of anybody in those casts. The men’s ensemble lost weight. They couldn’t keep pounds on. I didn’t break a sweat and I gained twenty pounds during those three years doing the show. What’s that tell ya?” he says with a smirk, slightly leaning into the new light green tile counter that’s graced with a vase bursting with fresh sunny daisies. (Prior to that increase of weight, in preparation for the Billy call back audition, over a three month period, Greg gained twenty pounds, too.) By the time the show opened, Greg knew exactly what was needed and how to pace himself. “I could show up on occasion with a hangover or I could show up sick because I knew I was going to take this journey as an actor where this character goes from the abyss to this newfound love for a child. For me, at the end of the show, I wanted to keep going. I could go to work exhausted and know that three hours later I was going to be completely rejuvenated. It’s also part of the fact that it’s a good show,” he emphasizes with conviction and passion. “It’s so well constructed; it’s such a beautiful story. It didn’t matter where the audience was, you knew at the end of three hours we were all going to go to that phenomenal place that the show takes you to—and we do it together.” Indeed, by the end, it’s like lightning in a bottle for everyone in the audience to share a triumphant toast. (The musical is touring around the country and currently in Los Angeles at The Pantages Theatre through mid-May).
When Greg accepted his Tony Award he dedicated it to four people. Two of them were instrumental in his career; both died of AIDS. One was his agent, Brian Reardon, and the other was James Raitt, the creator of Forever Plaid, an off-Broadway musical revue reminiscent of the guy groups in the fifties. “Brian literally championed me into the cast of Damn Yankees, my first big Broadway musical,” explains Greg, where at one point in the production he played alongside Jerry Lewis.
“I was never really freaked out about AIDS,” he proffers, calmly. “I can remember when James was in the hospital, weeks away from dying, and he was self-conscious, saying, ‘Don’t get too close. I’m highly virulent.’ My wife and I would just hug him.” He pauses. “Losing Brian and James was a great loss….It’s unfair.”
Greg became aware of the epidemic while attending Julliard in the early eighties. Prior to that he was a theater student at the University of Michigan, his home state. “The world I lived in was very innocent and bucolic, if that’s the right word,” Greg remarks of the white-bread neighborhood where he was raised. “Doesn’t ‘bucolic’ mean like something wonderful?” He repeats the word. “‘Bucolic’? I always thought it sounded like a stomach problem,” states Greg, meaning it. We laugh and for a few seconds explore the meaning of the word. After Greg’s second Broadway show, Born Yesterday, he became proactive with Broadway Cares and Equity Fights AIDS, which were then two separate organizations. “The theater community in New York realizes that AIDS is not over and is constantly and actively involved,” he insists, adding in a strong voice, “and that makes me feel worthwhile.”
Greg opens the freezer, retrieves ice cubes, and slings them into a giant glass pitcher, merging them with the ten brewing tea bags that are draped over the side. “Try some colon-cleansing green tea!” he offers, sounding like Martha Stewart, as he plops a straw in each of our glasses.
In addition to his regular donations to AIDS charities, Greg is also involved with March of Dimes and The National High School Musical Theatre Awards. “My brother, Dan, has done the AIDS LifeCycle, so we have lived vicariously through his journey. We would take our kids and meet him at the end of the ride.” He crosses his arms, resting his back against the kitchen counter, the sunlight streaming through the window. “I don’t know if you know this, but ten percent of Broadway Cares’ profits (of Billy Elliot) went to Place 2 Be. It’s an organization that provides aid for the children of mining families in Easington, the town in England where the play is set.” (The company of Billy Elliot raised more than $1 million for Broadway Cares during its run and $100,000 of that was donated to Place 2 Be.)
Greg’s natural state is to help others. “If anybody asks, I always say ‘Yes,’ unless it’s a hardship,” he clarifies. “I don’t care what it is. If someone needs a letter of recommendation, I’ll do it. When I was [living] in New York I probably went to twenty different schools during the course of my time there, and talked to kids saying, ‘I’m from a podunk town in the middle of nowhere in Michigan, I have a wife and kids [he and “Jules,” as he calls her, have been married for fifteen years], I live modestly, but I actually make a living as an artist.’” He pulls a crock pot out from the upper cupboard, to prep for tonight’s stew. “So many kids these days just don’t have a sense that they can do whatever they want to do, if they work hard. So many kids go, ‘Is it possible?’” He takes a moment as he rinses a pan, then peers over his shoulder. “If I can encourage a kid to go, ‘Yeah man, if he can do it, I can do it.’”
Greg’s kids, Aidan and Zach, seven and ten, respectively, are presently at school. Though I realize it may be a bit premature, I ask, ‘How will you broach the subject of HIV with your sons?’ “I already have,” he asserts, with the tone and expression of, “Doesn’t everyone?!” “When I was a kid it was [about] venereal warts or herpes, but now you can conceivably die if you are not careful and responsible!” he states, his bold brown eyes bugged. “[I told my boys], ‘when you do have sex with your partner,’” he interrupts himself, explaining—“we are not boy-girl at all in this house. I have two gay siblings, a sister and a brother…and the jury’s still out on me ….” (Greg works in these perky quips all during our chat, darting them with such a straight face that it takes a moment to register.) “I tell my boys ‘you will need protection.’ They know to use protection. My wife physically did the condom bit on the banana. Then she showed them the difference between a balloon and a condom. ‘Here’s a balloon. Blow it up. Great. Here’s a condom.’ She blows it up. ‘See they’re different. This goes on your dick; these are for parties.’”
Greg continues. “They understand it the best they can. When we explain it, it’s overly simplified so they can wrap their young brains around it. ‘When daddy puts his penis in mommy’s vagina there’s a baby.’ They know that but all the real details they don’t know [like] what a really good orgasm works like…‘Don’t be selfish [because] foreplay is very important’…‘[Sex in the] morning is great…,’” he facetiously rattles off, in an authoritative pitch sporting a devilish grin, “You know, all the vital stuff….” Now he takes a serious turn. “They’ll figure out all that stuff down the road, but right now, when they come to us with a question, we go, let’s deal with it.” Greg looks up toward the ceiling for a moment. “We’re also saying [to them], ‘Your job is not to reeducate everybody at school. This is for you; to help you understand. When you hear the stuff, we just want you to know what it really is instead of going, ‘Well, what is that?’”
From Broadway to the family way, after several years of living away from home, Greg is back into the swing of daddyhood. Now it’s time for Greg to pick up his boys from school. Before escorting me to the door, he confides, “I have many friends who are living with HIV and are doing very well. I also have friends who go in and out of remission.” He strikes that familiar faraway, pensive, almost boyish look, one which I recently saw on an episode of Nurse Jackie, where he plays the tender father of a young man who has just died. Greg concludes. “These people are my heroes. They’re such role models for my sons—because they choose to live their lives.”
Makeup by Angela Wang.
Thanks to Jason Giangiobbe for assisting in the photo shoot.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.